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With one of the best farm systems in the Major Leagues there are always new faces in the lineup every year for the Atlanta Braves, but the changes this year are really significant—it’ll be the first time in over two decades that Bobby Cox isn’t at the managerial helm. Cox retired after the 2010 season and the new man in charge is former Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez. In his first year as Braves manager he’ll oversee a complete revamping of the bullpen as well as transitioning some new everyday players—prospects and veterans—into one of the sport’s most consistently successful teams.
Aside from the change of manager, the Braves also upgraded their power hitting with the acquisition of one of Gonzalez’s former players in Florida—second baseman Dan Uggla. Uggla may be a downgrade defensively from the man he replaces, Omar Infante, but the hope is that his home run tally will more than make up for that. Uggla hit 33 home runs and picked up 105 RBI’s and he could improve upon those numbers with a Braves team that should be better at getting on base in front of him in the batting order.
It didn’t take long for Jason Heyward to establish himself as a future MVP candidate last season, and Atlanta has similarly high hopes for first baseman Freddie Freeman. Freeman is penciled in for the starting job, which will relocate Martin Prado to the outfield. Freeman was last year’s International League rookie of the year and he could be in contention for the same award in the National League this season.
The starting rotation looks solid, though the Braves are hoping for a more consistent effort throughout the year from all of their starters. Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens are the top four and give Atlanta the potential for a dominating rotation. Youngster Mike Minor is the 5th man in the rotation and has been very impressive despite his limited experience at the big league level.   The bullpen will be an area to watch—closer Billy Wagner’s retirement has forced a complete revamp and the new closer is rookie Craig Kimbrell. Fortunately, there is some continuity among the setup pitchers with right hander Peter Moylan and lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty reprising their roles from last season.
Finally, the team is hoping that third baseman Chipper Jones makes a full recovery from off season knee surgery. Jones was very proactive about his rehab and has been swinging a bat since December. He’s currently listed as the starting third baseman and everyone has their fingers crossed for his successful return to form. If he can stay healthy, he can still produce at an All Star level.
Ultimately, the Braves have all of the makings to improve upon last year’s 91-71 record. They’ve added power to the lineup and most other phases of the team are as good or better as the 2010 vintage. Rookie closer Kimbrell will have to grow into the role quickly, however, as the team has a lot of good middle relief options but no other viable Major League closer. With a few breaks, Atlanta could challenge the Philadelphia Phillies for the NL East crown.